A chink in the wall, Octavio di Leo

A chink in the wall: Interview by Octavio di Leo

  • Sunday lunch in Chinatown 6ftx8ft oil on canvas 1998
  • Tanks, eastward 3ft by 9ft inkwash on paper 1999

It has been said about your paintings that they look distant and transmit an atmosphere of coolness. But when I look at them, I find scenes of people gathered at a table or a picnic, sharing food and drink, rather lively still lives. What makes you choose this subject which you go back again and again?

These moments depict something which is common to most experience. They offer me the opportunity to paint a portrait of a specific place and person or group of people. When I look at certain arrangements of things, certain places, or the arrangement of people and objects in a certain light, I want to translate them onto a flat surface, make a painting, say something about that moment, that arrangement of things. The catalyst for every image I choose to make is recognition. I want to create a feeling of familiarity with unknown places and persons so strong, that an identification with the painting becomes inevitable.

Do you find recognition in images by other artists?

The feeling of recognition can come when I see a still life painting by Morandi or one of Rothko's auras. It comes when I look at an enormous panoramic photograph by Jeff Wall or one of Edward Hopper's mysterious figures, and it even comes from certain billboards advertising Marlborough cigarettes I see while driving down the highway.

There are many images of banquets, feasts and gatherings of people in the history of painting. Do you find they inspire your own work?

Ever since I started to paint, and even before, I remember looking at paintings like Titian's Supper at Emaus, Rubens' The Feast of Venus, Veronese's Marriage at Cana and Tintoretto's Last Supper, fascinated by the cast of characters and the props surrounding them. I've always been intrigued by the way one looks inside of the houses and lives of the people in Japanese wood block prints, like those by Hiroshige and Kiyonaga. Courbet's Burial at Ornans, Degas' At the Races and Cezanne's Bathers, with their struggle to bring together groups of people, have always been an inspiration to me. Whether the scene is mythic or biblical, or rooted in familiar experiences and rituals, all these painters are not copying reality. They are each making a parallel universe, different but at the same time full of echoes of the experiences of our world, perhaps even those experiences normally overlooked. As if each painting were making a silent single universe, in which to pause and take stock, where the noises of the outside world are filtered out and only chosen and harmonious sounds reach in, and the painter's vision is communicated.

To communicate a vision seems to be the most challenging task for a painter. Even more so, when this vision needs to be expressed in words as well. What is the relevance of painting, now that 'talking about' it has become sometimes more important than painting itself?

I paint because I realise painting is the only way to communicate my ideas. I find myself painting in an art world in which not many people are friendly to painting anymore, where painting is viewed as a slightly anachronistic past time, a decorative art in which subject matter is usually the most compelling element. Sometimes it feels to me as if all the painterly moves of the Greats of the 20th century have been robbed of their meaning by the self-conscious, self-referential art making of today. Not that I don't think art about art making, or painting that refers to painting is important, but it's as though an overindulgence in dramatic irony has made it difficult to value things that don't partake of this strong sauce -irony, I mean. So a kind of art that demands of the viewer a visual interaction, understanding a language built on what is seen, is so unfashionable it has become a sort of Latin and Greek, a language that a few cultivated people speak but is unintelligible for the rest.


People standing in front of a landscape painting usually ask 'Where is that?' When I stood in front of your round landscape with clouds, my first question was 'Where is the horizon?' It wasn't immediately clear where to look, how far the eye needed to go to find it. When I finally saw it behind the pink and blue tanks of New Haven, time had already passed by. Is that directed perception of time a leitmotiv in your paintings?

Very rarely are you far enough from something to see it all in one go. When you look at a landscape you tend to move your head and pan across it. At a certain point I was drawing landscapes of Coney Island (New York) and noticed this happening. The only way to fit these landscapes into a painting was to make it long and skinny. It is a two-dimensional plane representing a three-dimensional space, which because of its funny cinemascope, panavision format absorbs the fourth dimension: time. Potentially, every painting can do this, not only long and skinny ones, but if you have a long skinny painting you have to start at one end and look across it to reach the other end. You automatically take time to absorb the image, whether the painting is big or small.

You stayed on in New York after finishing school in the States. How did your life there enter into your paintings?

When I was living in the States everywhere I turned I was presented with another panoramic vista from the highway of a seaport, a power station, a building site or an airport. Because of the size of those places and the distance between me and the horizon, even if they were manmade constructions, the vastness of their scale connected them to nature. The light at different times of day, of the different seasons of the year and of particular weather conditions, became for me a painting tool I could use to integrate things we usually see as man's atrocities into this huge landscape . By making paintings of those big landscapes I wanted to isolate and make a metaphor of the experience I was having. Although the work I make couldn't be further removed from the work of James Turrell, I always feel the same sense of excitement and the necessity of the experience when I see his work. There is no way to see and connect with his work unless you are there with it, experiencing it. As soon as you try to explain it in words you realise how difficult and pointless this would be. I love that.

You spent most of your adult life in America, and it was there where you made your first collaborations with other artists. Is collaboration a particularly inspiring process for you?

I think collaboration is fertile ground for development. My brain works fast and efficiently when challenged by someone else. Once I made a big drawing with another painter (23 ft tall and 14 ft wide) in the lecture gallery at the New York Studio School (which used to be the salon of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney with crazy reliefs on the ceiling of flames full of dancing figures). The drawing we made was a transcription of a fresco by Delacroix, Héliodore chassé du Temple, which is in a church in Paris -we later visited. We had to build a scaffolding to make the drawing, and drew and talked and figured out together how to transcribe it onto the wall, life size, from a reproduction in a book. We left it there when we were done. One day, much to our chagrin, the drawing was taken down and thrown away. However, the thing that impressed me more than the loss of our drawing was the fact that, when you took this drawing out of the space, a space too tall for its width, you had to strain the neck to look up all the time. The occupancy of the drawing made the room fit its height. This was the first time I realised how an image can act on the space.

Are you still interested in working with painters?

Now I am more interested in collaborating with artists from other disciplines, particularly architects and interior designers. A painting isn't just an inert thing that hangs on the wall -it is active. I have seen this in the large drawing I made at school and in several collaborations with architects since. In these collaborations the strangely immobile, still action -which is a painting- has a chance to become an extra element and give potency to the decisions an architect makes. When the Bank restaurant in London was almost finished, for example, the spaces where the murals were to go were still empty. As we hung the panels on the wall, one by one, slowly they pulled together all the other elements of the restaurant, giving a new coherence to the space with their strong horizons. Now that I have seen how my work can transform the area where it hangs, I'm searching for contexts and environments where I can make this more and more explicit. My quest is to find all possible means to show the impact that painted images can have on the spaces they inhabit.


Now you are back in your Barcelona studio, preparing a new series of paintings. Considering the different subjects, influences, and techniques you've tried so far, and the many things you plan to do in the future, what remains the most important thing for you as a painter?

The important thing for me is that someone is making paintings. So when we look at all the things there are in the past, there will still be a way of relating to them. Otherwise it would be as if a language dies out because no one speaks it any more. And it seems to me there are so many good reasons for painting and understanding this language. So painters should keep on painting. My part of it is making as many good things as I can. Languages have boundaries, frontiers, borderlines, and one of the things that keeps me painting is that I have not understood or reached the boundaries of painting language yet. Occasionally I come up against a tall wall that seems difficult, maybe impossible to scale and fills me with awe and respect for the endeavor I'm undertaking. But at the same time this respect could be seen as a healthy dose of disrespect that makes me keep on searching for a chink in that wall.